Notes on Marie Antoinette, or: the MTV Sensibilities of Sofia Coppola

Marie Antoinette | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

“In the case of Madame Antoine, the enjoyment of music was from childhood central to her life.”

— Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette: The Journey (2001)

I.

“I love music, but I don’t really know how to talk about it,” Sofia Coppola said in 2004. “It’s very abstract to me.” I deeply relate to this sentiment, and am not sure what that says about me given that I write rather often about music, and professionally at that. In some respects, Coppola and I are both in the business of presenting music that makes us feel something to others, ideally so that they feel the same thing. But understanding where that feeling is coming from, being able to articulate it—this is something else, something a lot thornier.

II. 

The needle drops in Coppola’s narrative work, from Lick the Star through A Very Murray Christmas, have been waded into at length by writers like me. As has her adjacency to the music industry itself—the famous friends and collaborators, the marriage to the guy who made this, the marriage to the guy who made this. How her most recent two features, The Beguiled and On the Rocks, are arguably her least musical, defined more by cacophony—distant cannon fire threatening an otherwise tranquil silence, the noise in one’s head upstaging that of the big city—than melody.

III.

Writers sometimes invoke MTV while discussing Coppola’s work, or else speak to a sort of music video-ness that defines her features. But I’ve noticed that these same writers have a knack for crediting said music video-ness to Coppola’s soundtracks rather than Coppola herself. The more I turn this over in my head, the more it bothers me.  

IV.

Coppola’s music video career is often tangled up with, if not eclipsed by, that of first husband Spike Jonze. (It doesn’t help that they collaborated on several projects as a couple, or that Jonze has directed 10 times as many videos in total.) While a quick glimpse at their respective videographies would suggest that he nudged her into the video scene, she’d already been appearing in high-profile videos for two years when they met on the set of his directorial debut in 1992. In Sonic Youth’s video for “Mildred Pierce,” a 19-year-old Coppola wears pearls and mimes like a silent film star on drugs. In Madonna’s “Deeper and Deeper,” she parties with porn stars, drag queens, and various members of the Hollywood elite. She plays an addict proper in the Black Crowes’ “Sometimes Salvation.” Her best-known appearance is probably as the gymnast in Jonze’s video for The Chemical Brothers’ “Elektrobank,” which, to me, has always felt spiritually linked with the figure skating scene in Coppola’s Somewhere. The stakes might be lower in the latter, but perhaps they’re not.

Coppola in the video for “Sometimes Salvation”
Coppola in the video for “Sometimes Salvation”

V.

In 1993, Coppola began directing videos of her own, six years before her feature debut with The Virgin Suicides. As of this writing, she’s responsible for half a dozen—two linked to her films, the others for Walt Mink, The Flaming Lips, The White Stripes, and Phoenix (fronted by now-husband Thomas Mars). These shorter-form ventures—and music video culture, more generally—have trickled into her features in curious ways over the last two or so decades. 

Coppola only read Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides on the recommendation of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. Leslie Hayman, who plays Therese Lisbon in Coppola’s adaptation of the novel, had previously appeared in her video for the Flaming Lips’ “This Here Giraffe.”

In casting Stephen Dorff as her lead in Somewhere, Coppola had chosen a face known for its own music video adjacency, from Aerosmith’s “Cryin’” to Britney Spears’ “Everytime.” I like to think that the film’s pole dancing sequences were inspired in part by her own video for the White Stripes’ “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself.” 

The Bling Ring is set during the peak of MTV’s reality television era, the film’s characters worshipping figures inextricably linked to the network and its original programming. This is also true of Marie Antoinette, whose DVD extras include Jason Schwartzman filming a mock episode of Cribs as Louis XVI. 

Six months after the release of Beyoncé’s Lemonade film, The Beguiled began principal photography on the same Louisiana plantation. The younger members of Coppola’s cast were so thrilled to learn about the connection that they immediately documented and shared it, and there were few interviews on the film’s press tour where it didn’t come up.

Forged by MTV culture, Coppola has clearly never been able to kick it. 

VI.

Consciously or not, Coppola has a tendency to write her characters into situations where they watch music and music culture in its many iterations—at the opera, at karaoke bars, on TMZ. For her, music seems to be a visual thing as much as an aural one.

VII.

Coppola is one of seven filmmakers, including Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch, who’re included in Arved Ashby’s Popular Music and the New Auteur: Visionary Filmmakers After MTV. Released in 2013, the book examines “cinematic visionaries who have given pop songs the kind of centrality once reserved for the script.” In his chapter on Coppola and her work, music scholar Tim Anderson discusses how she generally writes her screenplays while listening to songs compiled with the help of music supervisor Brian Reitzell, as if she’s a video director who’s been commissioned to put a treatment together for an artist. Notes Anderson, “Allowing Reitzell such leeway at the preproduction phase indicates the importance Coppola places on popular music for her expressive palette.”  

To think of Coppola’s early videos as a mere preamble to her features is to sidestep how she still cuts her action to accommodate the songs she loves rather than the other way around, or how much she’s been said to rely on improvisation. Cinematographer Lance Acord, another frequent collaborator, explained while shooting Marie Antoinette, “It’s a more intuitive process of observation and discovering things as they present themselves to you.”

VIII.

Marie Antoinette is arguably the centrepiece of Coppola’s MTV-inflected career, conceived as it was as a sort of love letter to the music and music videos she loved as a teenager. 

“I wasn’t ever setting out to make a historical epic,” Coppola has said of her third feature. Indeed, we know from the film’s opening credits—in which a caricatured Marie (Kirsten Dunst) dips her finger into some cake icing and smirks at us, Gang of Four’s “Natural’s Not In It” blaring—that Coppola’s Versailles hasn’t exactly been copied and pasted from the history books. (Its official source material is Antonia Fraser’s 2001 biography of the young queen, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, but Coppola was reportedly much more taken with her mythos than she was the capital-H History, especially the politics. “I would get bored when it would get sort of too detailed,” she once said of the book. Fraser, it’s worth noting, loved Coppola’s film, believing that Marie “would have adored” its apoliticism.) 

Marie Antoinette is really a patchwork of videos and pop culture moments from the late ‘70s through the ‘90s. “A lot of bands in the early ‘80s had this kind of romantic idea of the 18th century,” Coppola explains in the behind-the-scenes featurette (directed by her mother, Eleanor). “And I always wanted it to be a little bit in this kind of New Romantic spirit, which was decadent…and to have the colour and music and everything reflect it.” This Versailles—this Marie—is the one you have in your head while listening to Queen’s “Killer Queen,” the one that Madonna breathed new life into at the 1990 MTV Video Music Awards. It seems to exist in the same world as the cotton candy-haired, motorcycle-riding Falco of “Rock Me Amadeus.” More than a little removed from the time period in which the real Marie lived, Coppola more or less imposed her own youth culture onto the dauphine-turned-monarch: “I was a teenager in the ‘80s, so I was thinking of them as teenagers, and relating them to my teenage time.”

Kiersten Dunst in Marie Antoinette
Columbia Pictures

IX.

There was a mixed response to Marie Antoinette’s anachronism and motley ensemble cast upon its release, but postmodern takes on the 18th century are what drew Coppola to the era in the first place: “My whole relationship to that period was through the New Romantics when I was a kid, so I created a New Romantic video version of the period.” 

Her vision was also informed by certain revisionist biopics from the ‘70s and ‘80s. She told IGN, “When I saw [Miloš Forman’s] Amadeus, and they were just speaking in their regular accents, they felt like real people to me as opposed to someone living in some other era I couldn’t relate to. So I was trying to take away as many kind of period-film-genre cliches and simplify it in a way that could be relatable on a human level.” The connection is particularly interesting when you consider the fact that Coppola and Forman’s stories are happening synchronously: Mozart is mentioned in Coppola’s film, and Marie’s brother Joseph (played by Danny Huston) is one of Amadeus’s main characters (played there by Jeffrey Jones). 

Marie Antoinette is additionally in conversation with Ken Russell’s Lisztomania, another anachronistic—if significantly more gonzo—biopic, this one about 19th-century composer Franz Liszt (played by the Who frontman Roger Daltrey). Neither Forman nor Russell’s film could exist without its popular music, since both subjects were indeed pop stars during their respective lifetimes. 

Sarah Flack, who edited Marie Antoinette, recently named a third music-driven feature in discussing the titular character’s “morning dressing ceremony” sequences: “I love All That Jazz, and I know Sofia does, too, so it occurred to me that this…daily repetitive nature of this tradition in Court was not unlike Roy Scheider’s character in All That Jazz preparing for his day.” Coppola suggested that Flack try Vivaldi’s “Concerto in G,” which Scheider’s Joe Gideon plays as he showers and self-medicates each morning, to capture the monotony of Marie’s own routine.  

Subtract the outlandishness that ensues in having all of these nods sit alongside one another in Coppola’s film, and the whole thing crumbles.

X.

Marie Antoinette begins in Austria in 1768. 14-year-old Antoine, our Marie—the youngest daughter of Empress Maria Theresa, herself an iconic Habsburg—is betrothed to Louis-Auguste of France (Jason Schwartzman), heir apparent to the French throne. In a knowing bit of casting, her mother is played by rock legend Marianne Faithfull; the two women linked by their sturdiness, their being known for having lived through things. 

While Marie is probably as important as a teenager gets, marrying to make certain peace between two nations, Coppola spends quite a bit of the film’s set-up showing us that—how—she’s still very much a teenager. We’re given her youth and relative immaturity in pieces: how she runs down hallways at Schönbrunn Palace, how she leaves an ungraceful ink splatter on her marriage certificate, how she giggles at an elderly woman who’s fallen asleep during mass. These moments might lend themselves to an anti-monarchist reading—this is the child to whom friendship between Austria and France has been entrusted—but Coppola’s track record making art about young women would suggest that they’ve been included more so out of sympathy: this is the childhood that’s to be abruptly suspended.

XI.

“It starts with an innocent period,” Reitzell has said of Marie Antoinette’s soundtrack. “The middle section is the more decadent period with the energy of more modern music. The end is the decline, and there are only one or two music cues.”

XII.

The film’s middle section kicks into gear once Marie is married. Expected to provide an heir, she finds that her husband won’t initiate sex with her, nor respond to her own advances—a massive problem, diplomacy-wise, and one for which she’s held responsible. (“She doesn’t seem the least bit interested in him,” we hear one gossipy courtier say, to which another responds, “She is Austrian. They’re not exactly the warmest people.”) 

Marie responds, in turn, by making a couple of friends—the Princess of Lamballe (Mary Nighy) and the Duchess of Polignac (Rose Byrne)—and pivoting to full-fledged hedonism. In what’s probably the film’s most talked-about sequence, her clique samples champagne, desserts, clothes, wigs, and jewelry for the duration of Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy.” The sequence is lush, pleasurable, and nearly three minutes long, with Coppola again cutting her action around the song so that we hear it in its entirety. In her 2017 book, Sofia Coppola: A Cinema of Girlhood, Fiona Handyside argues that Coppola “[uses] an MTV aesthetic to capture Marie Antoinette’s frenetic consumption.” The film’s implication is that said consumption is all she really has. (That, and the opera, where she—defying custom—has her fellow courtiers applaud with her at the end of performances.) As Coppola has said of the dynamic at play here, “Louis wouldn’t sleep with her, so she wanted to go out and party—like someone in a bad marriage going shopping. It just seemed like the same old story.”

“[Coppola and her team] actually based Marie Antoinette…on [Bow Wow Wow singer] Annabella Lwin,” claimed Nicole Powers, the band’s manager, in 2006. “They drew parallels from the fact that they were both young girls who found fame and fortune at a ridiculously early age.” Lwin, like Marie, was only 14 the year she was thrust into stardom (a detail that complicates some of the music she was made to sing over the next several years). This would seemingly help to explain the film’s multiple Bow Wow Wow needle drops. As Craig McLean wrote for The Guardian in a 2012 profile of the band, “The idea of a young princess running riot through the establishment is not dissimilar to iconic Lwin’s controversial position in the new wave court.” In the video for “I Want Candy,” Bow Wow Wow performs the song on the beach surrounded by giant candy canes. 

XIII.

On the Duchess of Polignac’s suggestion, Marie and her circle secretly attend a masked ball—a scene pulled right from Amadeus. A harpsichord-and-strings cover of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Hong Kong Garden” transitions into the band’s original just as the characters hit the dance floor. “I don’t think a quartet of that time would give it the same rush,” Coppola has said of the song choice. The featurette reveals that the cast and crew really did listen to “Hong Kong Garden” while filming the scene, once again exhibiting the level of forethought involved in Coppola’s sound design.

It’s at the same ball that Marie first encounters hot Swede Count Fersen (Jamie Dornan in his first-ever film role). “Are you going to tell me who you are?” he asks her over the sound of Bow Wow Wow’s “Aphrodisiac,” muffled so that Lwin’s voice sounds as if it’s coming through speakers at the venue. Marie shakes her head and bites her lip in response: “Are you?” The lovers-to-be are both still teenagers at this point in the story, and the song injects their interaction with a sense of hormones run amok. They won’t get to act on them for years. 

XIV.

In a 2006 essay written for Vanity Fair, Antonia Fraser remembered, “It was not until Sofia came over from L.A. on her way to Paris, breaking her journey to show me a rough cut of the film in November 2005, that I realized that rock ‘n’ roll was no code. The first blast of it nearly made me jump out of my comfortable chair in a screening room—just she and I—at the chic Covent Garden Hotel. Although I got to love it in the wild party scene.” There are multiple scenes to which Fraser may have been referring here, but perhaps it was the two that Coppola combines into one longer, uninterrupted sequence in the film: Marie’s coronation, soundtracked by the Cure’s “Plainsong,” and her 18th birthday party, for which Coppola—again—gives us all four minutes of New Order’s “Ceremony.” The sequence recalls the earlier “frenetic consumption” montage, but significantly amps up the decadence. More champagne, more gambling, and even the addition of some snuff.

XV.

After she’s had her first child, a daughter—“not what was desired but…no less dear”—Marie begins neglecting her duties at Versailles to spend most of her time at the Petit Trianon, a smaller château presented to her by her husband. Her so-called retreat is, in fact, just over a mile away from him, and from the goings-on at Court. One might not guess this from how Coppola presents it: as a dreamy, almost illusory getaway for Marie. Here, she wears her hair pink, just like Mozart as imagined by Forman, and finally gets to live out her passionate, if short-lived, love affair with her Swede. 

“Sofia and I found ourselves discussing ‘playboys’—her word,” wrote Fraser in a diary entry dated June 10, 2002. “We agreed on their irresistible attraction—not that one tries very hard to resist, since, as Sofia puts it, ‘you always think you are The One.’ Will this affect her portrait of Marie Antoinette’s lover (as I think he was) Count Fersen?” 

XVI.

In the video for Adam and the Ants’ “Stand and Deliver,” frontman Adam Ant appears as an 18th-century highwayman who robs two aristocrats—a couple, we might assume—of their possessions. The video is itself anachronistic, so the possessions in question are a stereo and a record collection, in keeping with the song’s lyrics. Ant is uninterested in either, and pokes fun at the couple for their staid attire: “The way you look you’ll qualify for next year’s old age pension.” Later, as the same couple drinks and dines among friends, unscathed and with Ant’s would-be loot intact, he crashes through the window and onto their banquet table. As the group looks on, he stomps his way down it all over their food, urging them to “throw [their] safety overboard.” His character is arrested and taken to the gallows to be hanged, but his bandmates help him escape at the very last minute. 

The video is mostly nonsensical, at least 50% smoke machine and Ant lip-syncing into the camera in an almost indecent way. At one point, he actually licks his lips at us. Coppola turned 10 the spring that it was released. 

XVII.

Fersen’s look in Marie Antoinette was styled after Adam Ant, whose voice happens to soundtrack the film’s only real sex scene. I like the idea of Coppola reading Fraser’s book and imagining Fersen as a similar sort of devilish nonconformist. Fersen is obviously a foil for Marie’s husband, but throwing Ant into the mix arguably turns him into one for her life more generally—the dullness of it, the stuffiness. 

While Coppola has never specifically named “Stand and Deliver” among the film’s influences, pieces of the video seem to come through in it, and not only during the Fersen sequences. On a basic level, there’s the anachronism, the film’s overall sexiness. “This could totally be an Adam Ant video,” Coppola tells Rip Torn and Asia Argento during the featurette as they shoot a scene in bed at Versailles. But there’s also the Duchess of Polignac, the only other renegade member of Marie’s inner circle, standing on the table at one of their Trianon dinner parties. There’s the spectre of the gallows, and the fantasy that Ant creates of magically wiggling his way out of them. “I should kidnap you,” Fersen tells Marie while lying in bed together, and we might truly believe for a moment that he could get away with it. 

Dornan and Coppola (with a reference photo of Adam Ant) on the set of Marie Antoinette
Dornan and Coppola (with a reference photo of Adam Ant) on the set of Marie Antoinette

XVIII.

Once Fersen leaves, Marie finds herself back in the real world—which, of course, is still Versailles, in all its over-the-top extravagance and insulation from the food shortages ripping through the country. She wanders over to the window at a party to imagine him on the battlefield, the only surviving soldier among a slew of bloodied corpses. Fersen looks right into the camera, triumphant and suggestive, backgrounded by his own smoke machine. The vision is overstated and silly, the kind of thing that only a horny brain would conjure up. It’s Ant, for sure, but it’s also Prince in his cravat in Purple Rain, which Coppola has separately named as formative to her sexual awakening. Marie asks her husband if she can be excused. We cut to her scuttling back to her bedroom to the Strokes’ “What Ever Happened?”—the most running in a corset we’ve seen her do since her final morning at Schönbrunn. She falls back on her insipid marriage bed; her breathing heavy, her hands resting on her chest. The scene has always read as quite sexual to me, Marie leaving a party to think about her lover while lying in bed. Whatever she might do next isn’t shown, nor even really implied. But Coppola’s approach to the moment is MTV-esque: restrained enough to pass any censors, evocative enough that your mind can’t help but fill in the gaps—the way Coppola’s may have while watching Ant or Prince on TV as a young woman. 

XIX.

The sequence marks the end of the middle section, our decadent period. The gloominess comes in quick succession thereafter. Marie’s mother dies, marking the end of a certain era of the Habsburg Empire; she has, then loses, another child; public opinion of her begins to change, as much at Court as outside of it. Coppola and Reitzell use relative silence to signal her decline. This time around, no one will clap with her at the opera.

XX.

“As I suspected, she is having difficulty with the ending of the script,” Fraser wrote of Coppola in the summer of 2002. Nearly 2 ½ years later, in the fall of 2004, the latter seemed to have found a workaround: “It was at this point that Sofia revealed, to my enormous relief, that she had changed the scope of her screenplay and was now stopping with the devastation of Versailles and the effective abduction of the royal family to Paris and the Tuileries on 7 October 1789, a few months after the fall of the Bastille.” 

For some, Marie Antoinette’s ending reads like a cop-out, and perhaps it is—the choice of a filmmaker seduced more by decadence than politics, just as her subject was. But as K. Austin Collins has argued of Coppola’s film, “That is the point. You aren’t watching a movie about the life of Marie Antoinette; you’re watching a movie that embodies all the reasons she died.” Indeed, while Coppola’s New Romantics tended to evade capture and execution, free to return to their colour and their music, that wasn’t exactly an option here. Still, true to the spirit of her muses, she ends her film while Marie and her family still believe they might.

Fraser continues, “I told her I thought that was a terrific solution. As to the ending: ‘We all know that!’ said Sofia.”